It's the Depression Era in America: Times are hard and they get even harder for Jacob who must give up his studies in veterinary science after his parents are killed in an accident. It turns out they remortgaged the house to fund his college education, so what else is a boy to do, but run away with the circus? As it happens, The Benzini Bros travel by railway, but this isn't an express ride. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes a while giving us a flavour of time and place, which isn't too savoury as Jacob winds up shovelling manure then pretty much eating it from Christoph Waltz playing the brutal ringmaster and owner of the circus, August.
Though he promotes Jacob to circus vet, August has no feeling for animals, opting to keep a horse alive in excruciating pain rather than put it down as advised. The steed belongs to his wife, the flashily sequinned yet sensitive Marlena (Witherspoon). She is alluring in the same way that Lawrence seduces the audience, mixing magic and beauty with darkness and mystery. Inevitably, Jacob is dazzled and Marlena is drawn to him for his compassionate nature and, presumably, that whole 'pale and interesting' vibe. Jacob comes with bags of youthful idealism too, but he's forced to keep a lid on that and his feelings for Marlena, which stunts the pace of the film.
Unlike Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 circus yarn The Greatest Show on Earth, the thrills are muted; there are few times when the danger of Jacob losing control is palpable. This - more than the half-bubbling chemistry between the leading players - means the story lacks passion. Witherspoon is too pinched as well, coming across as superior more than simply scared of her husband. In fact, it's Waltz (an Oscar winner for Inglorious Basterds) who raises the temperature of the film as her aptly-named tormentor, mad with jealousy and other indignities which are only hinted at. It's a shame Lawrence doesn't explore his past, because it's the only source of complexity in the story.
Lawrence opts for gradual reveals over big-top theatrics. Apart from the expected love triangle, Jacob falls for Marlena's new tumbling partner Rosie the Elephant. Naturally, Jacob and August disagree on the best way to discipline the creature in a big fat metaphor on their approach to handling women. But as with Marlena, Jacob is too often required to stand back and watch the abuse. An actor with less presence would look feeble. At least Pattinson is able to channel that helplessness, conveying an underlying tension as Lawrence gradually builds to the moment when all hell breaks loose. When at last it does happen, it's breathtaking, but more for the spectacle of jungle cats running amok than grand gestures of love. This is sweet, but it's pure candyfloss.
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